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Diagnosis of Low Back Pain and Sciatica
by Debra Wood, RN
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your back, hips, and legs will be tested for strength, flexibility, sensation, and reflexes.
Often, patients with pain may feel an urgent need to have a medical test. Medical tests are not routinely required for back pain and sciatica. Most episodes of acute back pain resolve on their own over several weeks. In these cases, the information from an x-ray or MRI scan may not change the medical plan, so tests may be unnecessary. An MRI scan or x-ray is usually ordered if there is a plan to do a procedure or surgery based on the result of the images. Studies of medical imaging have demonstrated that MRI scan and x-ray may be too sensitive. They can often show abnormalities that are not truly significant, such as degenerated discs in individuals who do not have symptoms. An improper medical test can lead to improper treatment and can greatly increase medical costs. It is important for such tests to be ordered appropriately.
Tests may include:
CT scan —CT scans may show disc herniations as well as tumors and other lesions. It is more sensitive than x-ray.
MRI scan —An MRI scan can show if a disc has herniated, and if there are signs of scar tissue around a nerve root. The test can detect other abnormalities, such as bony spurs pressing on a nerve root and tumors. It is more sensitive than a CT scan.
Blood tests —Blood tests may include a complete blood count and sedimentation rate. Blood tests may be ordered to check for signs of infection, metabolic disease, or inflammation.
Urine test —These tests check for urinary infection or blood in the urine.
Nerve conduction study —To determine the health or disease of a nerve
Electromyography —To determine if the nerve going to a muscle is functioning normally or if there may be pressure on it. It is often performed in conjunction with a nerve conduction study.
Myelography —X-rays are then taken to see how the dye lines the space in the spinal canal and if there are disc herniations or other lesions. This test may be ordered before performing back surgery.
Biopsy —If imaging studies determine that the cause of your back pain appears to be the result of a tumor, your physician may take a piece of the tumor (a biopsy). This will help determine what kind it is and how best to treat it.
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Last reviewed December 2015 by Laura Lei-Rivera, DPT
Last Updated: 12/20/2014
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